50 years later, gaps separate the races in our schools

May 12, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

SHANNON JOHNSON was born 32 1/2 years after the Supreme Court proclaimed "separate but equal" education unconstitutional on May 17, 1954.

It was 49 years later, in the same month, that Johnson, an African-American, was elected the junior class president at Baltimore County's Franklin High School, where the racial breakdown of the student population is just over 70 percent white, a little less than 20 percent black, 6.5 percent Asian and 3.3 percent Hispanic and American Indian.

Johnson, 17, said her election was a first for Franklin, where "no black person had ever run for office, ever." She realizes it was the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that made possible her election as junior class president at Franklin, a school that Johnson loves. She loves her schoolmates. She loves the faculty. She loves the administration. And she doesn't mind being the sole black student holding office at Franklin.

FOR THE RECORD - A column by Gregory Kane in yesterday's editions incorrectly stated that Shannon Johnson was the first black student ever to run for office or win office in the Franklin High School student government. In fact, she is the first black student to run for president of the school's Class of 2005. The Sun regrets the error.

"I don't care that I'm the only black person," Johnson said. "I couldn't care less about anything like that. People don't see my color anymore. And if they see my color, they don't judge me by it. And even if they judge me by it, it won't bother me because I'm still going to be who I am."

So it is because of Brown that a Shannon Johnson is able to even attend a Franklin High School, much less be a class officer there. That may be the only positive thing the decision accomplished. Many problems remain in the matter of African-Americans and education. Johnson even sees some of them at Franklin, notwithstanding the color-blind student body, faculty and administration. She often wonders why there are not more black students in honors classes, a trend by no means unique to Franklin.

Johnson takes four honors classes: technology -- which includes radio and an introduction to television -- English, journalism and a U.S. history course in which she's the only black student. She believes there are two reasons for this state of affairs.

"Some white people don't think we have the potential" to take honors classes, Johnson said. She felt she was able to take honors classes in the ninth grade but didn't get into any until the 10th grade.

"It shouldn't have taken that long for teachers to realize I should have been in honors classes," Johnson continued. "It shouldn't have taken that long for them to see my potential."

But, according to Johnson, black students share some of the blame.

"They're not motivated," Johnson said of all too many black students. "They're not motivated because teachers don't want them to excel. Black students as a whole aren't motivated, but no one wants them to be motivated."

The lack of motivation, Johnson said, leads to what she feels is a disproportionate number of black students dropping out of Franklin. She didn't have precise figures. She just based her hunch on the number of black faces she has seen disappear from her school.

Statistics from the Maryland State Department of Education Web site bear out Johnson's hunch. Franklin's black dropout rate is 4.82 percent, compared with 2.59 percent for whites, 1.69 for Hispanics and .96 percent for Asians. The 72.58 percent African-American graduation rate lags behind the white rate of 89.1 percent, and the Asian and Hispanic rates of 100 percent each.

A sense of perspective is in order: There are Baltimore City public schools that would love to have Franklin's dropout and graduation rates for black students.

Unfortunately, there's more bad news, at Franklin and at schools across Maryland. No matter how much celebratory talk you hear about the Brown decision in the next five days, keep in mind the sobering statistics that show the achievement gap between black and white students.

The Maryland School Assessment tests for geometry and 10th-grade reading show the extent of the gap. At Franklin, over 46 percent of black students were in the basic category for reading, compared to 13 percent for whites. The MSDE Web site defines "basic" as "unable to adequately read and comprehend grade appropriate literature and informational passages."

For geometry, the gap is even wider: Over 66 percent of Franklin's black students are in the basic category, compared to 31 percent for whites. For geometry, "basic" is defined as having "only a partial mastery of the skills and concepts" of the subject.

That gap persists in all school systems, from the one with the highest per-pupil expenditure for the 2002-2003 school year -- Montgomery County -- to Caroline County, which had the lowest. It persists in localities with a majority of black students and with a minority of black students. It persists in integrated schools and ones where virtually the entire student population is one race.

When I suggested to Johnson that the music culture many young blacks cling to -- the one that glorifies gangstas, thugs and pimps -- is not one that will produce the number of black scholars it could or should, but may on occasion produce situations like what happened at Randallstown High School on Friday, she neither agreed nor disagreed, but offered a prediction.

"If they depend on the music to find the identity they're seeking," Johnson said of those caught up in the rapture of gangsta music, "the identity they're going to get is one that's going to ruin our generation."

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